What Will Happen in 2011?

I can predict with a high degree of confidence that there will be a number of natural disasters, armed conflicts, horrible crimes, celebrity misadventures, political scandals, and serious financial problems somewhere in the world in the year ahead.  We only need to look at the past to accurately predict much of what will happen in the future.

Our problem is that we seldom know the important details about events to come.  A few years ago, my son was convinced I should be buying oil on the commodity markets because its price could only go up.  He had a point, assuming I could afford to buy oil futures; but he found out to his chagrin that the price he was prepared for me to pay became far higher than the value of the commodity within a short period of time.  I should add that I have never purchased commodity futures and would not even know where to begin.  If I were to start speculating, I would advise others to sell when I buy and buy when I sell.

We face a similar problem in predicting what will happen with the local economy and how its condition will affect city revenue.  Our largest sources of income are property tax and utility bill payments that most people reliably pay every year.  We have seen no evidence of a declining payment rate for property taxes this year, but we have seen reduced water usage which translates into lower utility bill payments.  Lower levels of construction activity have dramatically reduced the rate of increase in property tax revenue as well.  As long as our revenue or income sources remain flat or decline, we will obviously have a problem coping with increased expenses.  Recognizing that asking people to pay more when many have lower incomes is unfair and unsustainable, the City will continue to cut expenses.  The nature and severity of cutting costs will be determined through the budget process and, ultimately, will be decided by the City Council.

Just as we know bad things will happen in the world and in Albany in 2011, we know good things will happen, too.  We will read about scientific discoveries, medical miracles, economic success, heroism, and achievement, to name a few.  We have reason to believe new businesses will open here, and we know there will be physical improvements in the community, as projects like Talking Water Gardens and the East Thornton Lake Natural Area progress. 

The most important good things about 2011, from a city manager’s point of view, are probably things most people won’t really notice.  I predict city employees will continue to deliver high quality services with integrity and competence.  Police and fire fighters will show up in emergencies and do their jobs well; library workers will make their facilities warm and welcoming places; public works employees will keep water and sewer systems working properly while maintaining streets; parks & recreation workers will run programs and keep parks attractive; the finance and human resource departments will provide essential support to people throughout the organization.  Important services such as transit, building inspection, planning, fire prevention, the airport, and municipal court will continue to help make Albany a good place to live and do business.

Spectacular or unusual events may dominate the news, but I think the most important concern for most of us is the safety and happiness of our families and friends.  The cheerful barista at the coffee shop, the soldier in Afghanistan, or the city attorney out searching for the neighbor’s lost dog give me reasons to be optimistic about 2011.   As we close one year and begin another, I would like to thank everyone who contributes to making the world a little better than it was in 2010.

True Grit

My wife, son, and daughter-in-law sometimes regard me with knowing looks when I watch and comment on old western shows and movies on television.  My remarks are usually something along the lines of “Why don’t they still make shows like this?”  I think they recognize that I am an old guy reliving my youth as I watch John Wayne, Clint Walker, Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper act out romanticized morality plays set in the Old West.  I hate to admit this, but the truth I have to face is that an important part of who I am is a composite of all those characters I watched and admired during my formative years.  It’s not all bad.

The opening this week of the remake of the movie “True Grit” has reminded me of the lessons I took away from cheering for the guys in the white hats in the theaters of the 1950s and ‘60s.  Many of the things I absorbed from those movies probably just reinforced the values and lessons I was learning at home and school.  I have a particularly vivid memory, though, of “True Grit” and the concept of how character can shape a life.  In fairness, I read the book before I saw the movie, so I may be giving more credit to the screen version than it deserves.  Nonetheless, the movie helped me see that in everyone’s life there are moments when you have to make choices that will define who you are and how you view yourself.  I found myself asking whether I had the “grit” to do the right thing when the right thing was required.

I vividly remember one failure.  I worked at a resort in the mountains following my freshman year in college and one day my boss directed me to fix a clogged toilet in the men’s room at the lodge.  I was confronted with one of the more disgusting messes I had seen up to that point in my life and I recall exiting the room to seek some assistance from another employee named Scott.  He walked into the restroom, surveyed the situation, reached into the toilet and pulled out the towels that created the clog.  Scott then looked at me and said: “When you have to go fishing, you go fishing.”  True grit.

I would like to think that in bigger tests as an employee, husband, father, and grandfather I have shown some grit when I had to.  I know I have had to resolve some difficult situations and do some disagreeable things over the years.  Art allows us to see things we might not otherwise see and thus become people we might not otherwise be.  One of my Christmas gifts this year will be to take a young man I know to see the latest version of “True Grit.”

The Good Old Days

Just two lifetimes ago, December 15, 1860, the United States of America stood at the brink of a crisis that threatened the existence of the country and led to the deaths of more than a million of its citizens.  The Civil War that ensued was a battle for the soul of a nation, as well as a conflict over concrete economic, social, and governmental issues.

The New York Times is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by publishing daily articles from its 1860-65 editions.  Modern readers have the opportunity to read what our great-grandparents were seeing during one of the most difficult periods in the history of our country.  By simply going to www.nytimes.com, anyone can see history come alive just as it does on the pages of our newspapers today.  There are fascinating parallels.

The chronicles of 1860 include a discussion of the Crittenden Compromise, a proposal that would have allowed slavery to continue in most places into the indefinite future.  President-elect Lincoln privately opposed the compromise even though he was publicly not in favor of immediate abolition of slavery.  Modern day commentators suggest Lincoln was disingenuous, just as President Obama is now subject to similar criticism for compromising with Republican legislators on extending tax cuts for even the wealthiest taxpayers.  I believe both cases are examples of leaders having to make pragmatic judgments about what they believed to be best for the nation as a whole, recognizing the specific circumstances of a given time.  We often form opinions about the motives and actions of leaders without knowing what they know and with the benefit of perfect hindsight.

I believe we can gain great insight into modern problems by following the events of the past and learning the lessons to be found there.  We are not likely to solve intractable issues with knowledge of the past; but we can apply our understanding of important events to our times in ways that help prevent and resolve, at least temporarily, many of history’s persistent problems.  The debate over the scope and power of the federal government is as timely, if not as violent, today as it was 150 years ago.

I can almost imagine Christmas in the home of my great-grandfather Adam Hare, who was about five years old during the holiday season of 1860.  We believe he lived somewhere near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his father, mother, and older brother.  I doubt there were many presents or even much to celebrate in what seems to have been a very poor household.  There is some evidence that Adam’s father, William, served in the Union army and died shortly after the Civil War.  I know of many relatives from different branches of my family that served on both sides during the conflict.

My family history was profoundly influenced by a civil war that, in the end, was caused by an inherent weakness built into the country that was to become the United States.  The failure to address that weakness created a debt comprised of misery and misfortune that we continue to pay today.  Confronting our collective problems and resolving them before they lead to violent conflict should be one of the great lessons of the Civil War.  I hope that as we celebrate the season of peace in 2010, we will remember the events of 150 years past with understanding and a commitment to do better.